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Early Carse in school our college got exploding here of course way outside of science must continually improve and must be re-examined in order that as the body of knowledge accumulates we shall transfer an appreciable part of this of the important parts of it from generation to generation. The words of Walter S. Michaels physicist and educate our WGBH FM in Boston presents a century of science produced under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in goal operation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. Your host voted Tory former editor of Popular Science now director of radio television programming at MIT past programs in century of science and surveyed developments in the 20th century sciences and the implications they present for the American today. With this conversation with Walter S. Michaels of Bryn Mawr we conclude the series with a look ahead especially to the guardian of the future in science education.
Within this century scientists have begun building very strange very expensive and colossal machines to accelerate Adams and parts of atoms to very high speeds. The building of these big accelerators or atom smashers in this century has been likened to the building of pyramids by the Egyptians and cathedrals in Europe in the 12th century. But there is a difference. Everyone could see what the pyramid bankers and the cathedral builders were doing and had in mind. Whereas a good many of us find the activities of the physicists nowadays rather bewildering. Professor Walter S. Michaels is chairman of the physics department had been more college and an active member of the Physical Science Study Committee. This is a group of scholars who are trying to modernize and improve instruction in physics in the high schools. So we have asked him to talk today about the place of physics in a liberal education. Professor Michaels are these new tools of the physicists really comparable to the pyramids and the great cathedrals.
Well I suppose the first question was suggested by the size of the things which I'll admit kept comparable with the pyramid. There are some real differences though. One of course is the time scale which they are built. These are built in fairly short times maybe months or years not generations are required for the pyramids and the cathedrals. The bigger and the real difference though is that the pyramids which were intended to last forever were built for the eternal life and the glorification of a particular individual the pharaoh was to be buried in them. The cathedrals were built for the glory of God is an eternal thing static so to speak from their own time. Whereas these machines are built for relatively short time use for specific utilitarian purposes. Well now I suppose the purposes of a pyramid and cathedral builders were utilitarian. Well pinioned who. This is true I admit it's a question of for who you tell of the perhaps the one is for knowledge the
other was for particular individuals or in the one case for religion in general of course which is more comparable. What I mean to getting at here is is why should these things be build when they require such a great expenditure of everybody's money and so few people really apparently have any understanding of what they do. Well this ties back I suppose to what is the basic purpose of all physical size. We're trying to understand. The universe around us and in particular the thing that is a real interest to all of us always has been of interest among em is what is the nature of the stuff that we call matter. What does this table really like. Why does it exist at all. Now this is forced us more and more to move into the realm of the very small. First of all the atoms postulated by Democritus thought about by the Greeks but they were in a position
to do anything about it. It was the development of chemistry out of alchemy and the development of balances that could measure things nicely that allowed 150 years ago roughly to show that atoms must exist or at least the world behaved exactly as if they did exist. Here's the case of a rather simple machine that was adequate for its time. As we probed down deeper found the particles within the atom the electrons protons the neutrons. New questions have arisen and we're now worried about what is the really fundamental nature of these particles of matter itself. The only way this can be done is by having enough energy to tear are the particles apart literally or to create even to create particles out of energy. And it's in this process of creation destruction exchange of the particles that we
need the machines. But as I understand it know when you get down to these very tiny parts of an atomic nucleus they really only last for a very small fraction of a second that's true some of them a bit in the second. Yes. What is the real point in studying things that are that trench it. Well let me put it that's what I would do it you wouldn't expect a historian. To limit himself to study the rocks because those are the things that last through history. Men are pretty transparent and yes they do. Say scale test ride the same scale. Will you learn enough from these small particles that will be useful or use your word utilitarian. Well now course we've got to be careful about this word useful again. If we're speaking of useful for the sake of extending our knowledge without knowing where this is going to lead. Yes it is the fact that these particles can be created that in interacting with each other they give us
some picture of the kind of forces that hold matter together that may tell us answers to questions such as this. Why is a proton as just as big and just as heavy as it is. Why is it that all the particles have a particular amount of electrical charge positive and negative are not. But never any other amount. These are really basic questions for the understanding of matter. Now whether these will lead to better entertainment more food we don't know. And nobody nobody can know. Well I can see how this this could be a pretty you know exciting sort of sport for people who become involved. Is there something that one of the fun one of the games of this more fun than any other game in the world in the minds of many I see well enough but what can be done to sort of bridge the gap and let more people at least share the fun. Well here of course we have this problem. It is very hard
for the scientist to explain to the layman the things that the scientist himself doesn't yet understand. For this reason it is always a problem of just how to explain the front tiers of science at any moment. One can see a lot of examples of this go back to the Middle Ages. And if you had maintained that the earth was a sphere. You probably would be labeled a madman and you would have had a very hard time explaining anybody how the Earth could be a sphere. There certainly is no difficulty now. One might almost say the children are born with this knowledge they acquired so fast. Another case in point. I remember that when I was a youngster of school age there was a story not true but a story told widely that there were only twelve men in the world that understood Einstein's relativity theory. This was because the understanding I would have been with many people who were working with the time was not yet advanced to the stage at which they could explain it well. And yet now
we can introduce relativity theory give the basic ideas I want a freshman in college with no trouble. It goes very well Aaron I would not be at all surprised to see relativity theory introduced into a good high school courses in physics within a few years. Can this be done fast enough. Well it seems to me that part of the problem here is yes I could see how a high school student or a college freshman could understand relativity theory. If you had enough time and words and patience to get through all of the necessary concepts that come first. But can you do these things that much faster to get them in that stage not a meet. I think that one always takes more time to teach a subject. In the early stages of understanding I meant that he does at a later stage where learning all the time how to do the things faster what can be put in and what can be left out. And this means that any Carse in school are college I'm not exploding here of course is way outside of science must continually improve and
must be re-examined in order that as the body of knowledge accumulates we shall transfer an appreciable part of this and the important parts of it from generation to generation. It requires of course some new thinking and a change of mind in all people those who are working with those who are teaching it and those who are being taught. Is there any truth in your experience of this thing that I hear fairly often that the younger you are the easier these things are to learn because you do not have to unlearn quite so much. Well this is certainly true of some things at least. I'm quite certain that is true in languages I'm quite certain that's true of a good deal of simple mathematics. Perhaps there's a proper stage and I'm not sure we've always found it. For each of these ideas at which the background is just about sufficient to do it at that time in the course of all this is there any real danger as you see it that science will be so greatly emphasized in our schools that the humanities and
the older things will be to neglect I'm going to object right here to this and strenuously this contrast between science and the humanities is one that really upsets me badly. Sciences are humanities they are activities of the human mind just as much as literature art. All of these are part of the culture and are parts that are so intimately related. But I do not believe it we can talk about sciences versus the humanities. Well people do they know and perhaps this is an indication that we havent done too good a job in letting students and people all along the line of education. Understand what the scientists really are. I'm afraid we have failed in some of our teaching of this. We have made the sciences something which comes out of nature and man has practically nothing to do with actually the sciences are just as much an invention of man as is a
painting or a poem. Well does it have the same concept of goodness and badness does it. I think said I have a moral connotation in the same way. I wonder now if the humanities do this directly any more than the sciences do. This question of value judgments goodness. I think there was an article that appeared last spring some time by Jack Myers on the Star Evening Post that pointed out that maybe the humanities had taught people to be good citizens but it allowed them to suffer under conditions under which they would revolt it otherwise because they had the amount of stuff. Some of the art and literature to fall back on was. Scape Well I'm sure that the teaching of any survey could be criticized. Neither the humanities people know they said it's done a perfect job. But let me come back to your question you know in regard to the exiles crowding out the humanities and I'm used I've used your term loosely in spite of my objection to it.
I certainly would hope that I think that no scientist would like to see the work given in the non-science fields. And I'm thinking particularly of literature music art. What no side is from like to see these things amended are cut down appreciably. On the other hand I do think that if we look at our culture as a whole. That is certainly has been true that the sciences have not had their relative emphasis that they have deserved in the schools as compared with the more traditional older subjects. So I would hope that there would be a continual rebalancing of the amount of time spent on these and we do have more and more to teach. This means that we've just got to find more effective ways of teaching both types of thing in order to get both in. I suppose that this is a little complicated but I have a sort of vague line between
science and technology and this is certainly another point where we have failed in our education. I am certain and that is that so many people outside the scientific field but well-educated people that should be acquainted with the nature of science at least insist on confusing science and technology completely. I couldn't keep them straight. This of course is is hard to do always because the dividing line is thin. On the other hand let's just take one issue that's risen within the last couple of years. The issue of artificial satellites. Now when a satellite is put up it may be put up to get some scientific information. But as far as the launching of a satellite the science of this was done nearly three centuries ago. And in the middle seventeenth century could have specified all the conditions for putting a satellite in orbit. The only thing he didn't have was the technology the propellant
to give it enough of a push to get it up there. I think this is the type of confusion because certainly the word science could use newspaper. In regard to this we are behind the Russians in science but we do not have satellites up. Well actually this has nothing to do with a good share of this current excitement and it is really excitement over technology. Just a great deal of it is excitement over technology. Now we must remember that technology is based on science we have the pure search for information and knowledge without thought of applications and the applications almost always fall out. Your professor in a girls college Professor Michaels is. It is important that physics be taught to girls as it is to boys is there a difference there. It's certainly true as far as I can see that God has given women brains that are quite like the brains of men and I fail to see any reason that we should not EULAs all the brain power we have. Now it is perfectly true that with the facts of life
being what they are with our social mores being what they are that they're going to be relatively fewer professional women in the sciences than men at least will large periods of life when they're raising children and things of this sort. But I'm not worried about this aspect of the teaching or I want to education is doing as much as I am what the sciences and what the rest of education does for the non-scientist is certainly true that in the next century many of the decisions that will happen made political economic and so on are going to be determined by what science has accomplished. Now we cannot expect all of history to have a thorough knowledge of the most recent developments in science but at least I would like to see them have enough
understanding of how science and scientists work. So they would be in a position to judge what scientists are saying as a fact these decisions. And certainly women are going to have to make as many decisions as men are. They are valid if they are sensible. Well then I know that the Physical Science Study Committee is interested in restoring the primacy of subject matter in the educational process is the subject matter of physics really important to a housewife or a secretary sales woman say if you are speaking of the subject matter that's going to be retained 10 years 20 years from now. Detail knowledge. Know when we're speaking of the primacy of subject matter. I think that the attitude that we are taking is that some of the things that are set up as goals of education social adjustment good citizenship this type of thing we do not believe can be taught directly. These things follow
from the activities of a mind that has had some sharpening against something. This is where subject matter can come into the schools to accomplish indirectly perhaps what we believe cannot be accomplished just by aiming at. In other words you're really not so concerned about a specific understanding of subnuclear particles as of the way of thinking about this is right. Let's take a case in point on this whole argument about producing good citizens is often sad. By the founders the republic made the statement over and over again that they exist and the continued existence the Republic demanded an educated citizenry. And this is was an argument for teaching citizenship. The fact is that the founders of the Republic themselves had a good solid classical education which seem to produce pretty good service and have used both classical education.
There again you're coming back to this very point of whether science really is a humanity and really contributes to this or not don't you. Yes let's put it this way. But there are many subjects probably. And which one can produce these effects. Now what we have to see which ones of these are important at any stage in our history. As being the best ones to produce a whole series of facts. I see a sharpening of the intellect but also the development of the kind of thinking that's going to give a sense of responsibility. Business has one big advantage for this purpose and that is the physics deals with simple things now. I know that one can say well that doesn't sound very simple but the reason the physics uses mathematical description and so on is that it has dealt with simple things and I assure you that the inside of the atom is a far simpler thing. Than any living organism and is a far simpler thing than any social or political phenomena that we may
deal with. Well Professor Michaels just what is this committee proposing to do to the teaching of high school physics what's happened that necessitates a change. Well I suppose the main thing that had us worried that was this physics along with the rest of science has been expanding rapidly in the last half century or century and there's been a tendency just to let each new piece. Physics creep into the high school courses and in addition to this to include a good deal of technology has grown out of the physics and high school courses until they have become so overcrowded that to a large extent what the students were getting out of them or a lot of isolated facts that they would forget very seldom and very little knowledge of about what physics is or how physics works. Perhaps I should say we are after several very different things but related one is that we would like to have the students see physics as a human activity.
Another one is that we should like them to know physics grows out of the observation of phenomena that is not something is printed on a textbook page. It's something that we have to draw out of nature by asking the right questions. We also would like them to get practice in doing the kind of thinking which can be done easily in physics as compared to many other subjects. Practice and thinking quantitatively thinking exactly. But also good sound practice and thinking about things in a less quantitative way to bring out results that you can go the laboratory and check. This is much of much of our reasoning. This isn't true of we don't have any way of checking up whether right or wrong as one can always say when listening to a political argument. And what we are after is to give the student material about which he can think whether he has to do the thinking in one case quantitatively in another qualitatively is probably unimportant
but he certainly should a practice of both kinds of thinking. How are you specifically going to do this is this being a a major change in instruction methods. To some extent it does. I think in the first place we have purposefully eliminated from the course that we are developing much of the material was included in ordinary courses. We have sacrificed breadth of coverage to get increased depth and understanding. In the laboratory I think is what I wear when the real changes in method comes. They physics laboratory to a large extent for a long time. Has been so standardized that I've reduced Oh almost to the reading of a cookbook and a falling out of cookbook instructions. Well we were anxious to do is to have the student to the limit of his capacity at the moment and I was trying to
reproduce in the laboratory for himself the kind of thing that a scientist does in the laboratory to do something a study in which he doesn't know the answer in advance and where even the direction in which he's going to move may not be determined in advance but only be determined by what happens when he doesn't first things. Of course you can't go back to this question of tools and a great deal of modern physics the tools are very big complex difficult to operate. Can you simulate just troll. But still one can do even so modern physics with relatively simple tools. What we are planning to do incidentally is to supplement the cars and supplement the laboratory. By a series of films not with a whole course on films but many films as AIDS in the teaching of the course and where we come into these questions where the apparatus is too complex to be used in the high school
laboratory. Here we will take the apparatus to the student via the film is this course primarily intended to use physicists and listed Lena. This is not what we are after. If it were I think we would not be putting the effort where put it into it. What we are after here is part of the general education of at least the better group the more able group in the high schools and I don't mean just the top but of a pretty large slice of the high school population. At present the course that we are trying to develop is not intended for an appreciably larger group that are taking physics now. And this is about a quarter of our high school population. I think we've got to go further eventually because physics is too important to have only a quarter of the high school children take it and we may have to develop more than one kind of physics course to make it exciting and without the excitement they would have already lost. What is the
essence of physics. Are there other courses that require this same kind of revision or modernization in your opinion Professor Michaels. I think so. As I indicated before I suspect that we've got to reexamine all of our courses at fairly frequent intervals and I would like to see very much the same kind of effort that has been going into this job go into those now. By that I mean lists that. When Professor Zacharias go see to the side he brought together a university group including research people teaching people and also a high school group. But I shouldn't say he brought two groups together he brought these into a single room and we've had here those two parts of our education system in universities and colleges and the high schools which too often in the past have gone their separate paths with very little direct contact
working as a unit in developing this course. There's no earthly reason that the same kind of effort take very different directions what we've taken could not be very effective in English in languages. And there has been some I know going on in languages in history one naturally wondered with the emphasis on this course being so different from what it meant for us for those courses. How the students would react to it. It's been very interesting that they have shown signs of a real hunger for intellectual challenge. At the first part of the course they were weren't quite willing to believe. That they were asked to think more than they were to memorize. There was nothing wrong with memorization. But one shouldn't stop there. All of the teachers that I've talked with thus far have been very enthusiastic. Now this is interesting because it is not easy for the teacher to suddenly change it. And I think of a remark that one teacher made. We're talking about this a while ago and he was asked how this course was going and how he felt about
it. And his answer was I am working harder than I ever did in my life before. And I'm having a much better time. I see too that your committee is convinced that learning and I'm going to quote this phrase is a most difficult process and I'm sure that many of us found this so. But is it necessarily so. Can't we also learn from quite pleasant easy to take experiences. In other words can you judge that medicine by the taste. Well this is something I suppose everybody has ever taught worries about we always try to make learning as easy as possible. And we're searching for a way all the time to make it easier for the student. But I hope that we will never succeed completely for this reason. All the fun and intellectual activity is lost if you don't have to make any effort. It's about the size. If I Superman were to appear on Earth who had about three times the strength and twice as long legs as the rest of us.
And engage in a fuel hundred yard dash isn't found out that he was running them in five seconds against a field of 10 I think it stopped very still. In other words I have a special that the enemy is not work it's boredom and we just saw him become bored if we didn't try to do some of the difficult things at least. You have been listening to Professor Walter S. Michaels chairman of the physics department at Bryn Mawr in education for a century of science. This has been the last program of the series century of science a recorded exploration of developments in science and their import for the 20th century American. This eries is prepared by WGBH FM in Boston for the Lowell Institute cooperative broadcasting Council. Your host voted Tory former editor of Popular Science now director of radio television programming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Director for the series Lillian embassy no. Producer Jack the
Summerfield will have misspeaking century of science is produced under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center and distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is the end E.B. Radio Network.
Century of Science
Education for a Century of Science
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WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Walter C. Michels, chairman, Department of Physics, Bryn Mawr College
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Discussions of aspects of science affecting modern America. This series is hosted by Volta Torrey, the director of radio and television programming at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the former editor of Popular Science.
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Director: Ambrosino, Lillian
Guest: Michels, Walter C. (Walter Christian), 1906-1975
Host: Torrey, Volta, 1905-
Producer: Summerfield, Jack D.
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-9-10 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:14
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Chicago: “Century of Science; Education for a Century of Science,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 19, 2024,
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